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Analysis: Mississippi prison system unlikely to form new group to hear from inmates' families

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Shannon Cook of Brandon, the mother of an inmate, carried several copies of a letter she had written about problems she sees in the Mississippi corrections system. She held the papers as she sat patiently for more than an hour, listening to attorneys discuss the prisons.

They talked about contracts, bid laws and training for guards. They previewed a report they would submit to the governor, focusing on recommendations to improve a system rocked by a corruption scandal that brought down the corrections commissioner who had held his job a dozen years.

On this day, they never talked specifically about the inmate health and safety issues that were on Cook's mind, she said after the meeting as she gave a copy of her letter to a reporter.

"First I would like to thank the people who are trying to help inmates," her letter started. "I know they are in prison, but they are people too."


In late 2014, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant established an independent task force, mostly made up of attorneys, to examine what led to corruption in the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Their mission was clear: find ways to fix problems with no-bid contracts and to make the prison system more efficient and transparent.

The task force released its recommendations June 26, and those are posted to the governor's website: http://bit.ly/1enh91N .

The report praises the new corrections commissioner, Marshall Fisher, a no-nonsense former federal and state drug-enforcement agent.

"The task force has found him to be forthcoming, forward-thinking, transparent and fully committed to restoring integrity, efficiency and professionalism to MDOC operations," it says.

The report notes that while the task force was created to focus on financial matters, other topics arose during members' six months of work. Inmates' relatives, such as Cook, attended several meetings, and the report acknowledges them: "The task force recommends that the Legislature establish a Prison Advisory Council ... to regularly hold public hearings on prison operations and report its findings to the governor and the Legislature for consideration."


Cook's son, Christopher Caylor, was convicted of robbery and aggravated assault in Rankin County. Department of Corrections records show that Caylor, now 21, entered the prison system in October 2011 and is serving a 13-year sentence.

In her two-page letter, Cook enumerated prison problems from a mother's perspective. She acknowledged some complaints are unlikely to elicit sympathy from the public, including these: Prison food is terrible and "medical attention is a joke."

"He was stabbed at Walnut Grove when he first went to prison," Cooke wrote. "I didn't receive a phone call or anything."


How likely is it that the Mississippi Department of Corrections will establish an advisory council to have more frequent contact with inmates' relatives, such as Cook?

"Holding public hearings regularly on prison operations would be potentially disruptive to MDOC's operations," department spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher — no relation to the commissioner — told The Associated Press in response to that question last week.

Lawmakers regularly talk to crime victims and inmates' relatives, and then relay information to MDOC, the spokeswoman said, and the department's constituent-services and communications offices often deal with citizens' concerns. She also noted that a new state law that took effect July 1 creates a committee to oversee an inmate welfare fund, which pays for some education programs. At least one member of that committee must be a relative of a current prisoner.

Having one representative on a committee probably won't make inmates' families feel they're being fully heard, but it gives them a somewhat louder voice than they've had until now.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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